June 18, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Chain of Thought 

Food writers examine the role of corporate-owned restaurants in the local dining scene.

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Like so many story ideas, this one came about over a meal — a couple hearty burgers and a shared strawberry milkshake at Beauvine Burger Concept, if you're wondering. As critic Nathalie Oates and I chowed down on a Belle Ringer and a Bellytimber, dipping our fries into ramekins of Beau sauce, she mentioned that she and her family recently visited an old favorite, a chain restaurant that's been serving Italian food in a shopping mall since the early 2000s. That led us down a rabbit hole neither of us had explored as food writers: Why don't we ever write about chains?

Does embracing and celebrating the beloved local dining scene mean there's no room in our coverage for the corporate-owned establishments that clearly still have a devoted following? Don't even the foodiest of foodies pop into Panera or Chipotle every now and then? What would happen if we sent one of our most opinionated restaurant critics to a national chain, with the instructions to go in with an open mind and treat the assignment exactly the same as any other restaurant review?

We discussed the different roles that chain restaurants have played in our lives over the years: reliable nights out for families with picky kids, quick, consistent on-the-road meals, comforting guilty pleasures. Chili's was a go-to when I was growing up in the suburbs of Charlotte, and I have nothing but fond memories of polishing off baskets of chips and salsa with my mom, sharing those giant appetizer platters with my friends on Girl Scout trips and taking home plenty of fajita leftovers. For years as a teenager I exclusively ordered the boneless buffalo chicken salad, loaded with blue cheese crumbles, bacon and tortilla strips, and I'll be honest — it remains one of my favorite entree salads. It's nostalgic and damn delicious.

After a lengthy deliberation, we decided it was a feature worth digging into, and I was eager to pitch the concept to the rest of the food writing team. We've got a diverse set of opinions filling these dining pages from week to week, and the responses I got ran the gamut. Inside this week's feature you'll find odes to favorite chains, a thoughtful look at what local entrepreneurs can learn from the corporate guys and an impassioned essay from one writer who's made a point to actively avoid any restaurants that aren't local. Much like the food and drink world itself, there's something for everybody. — Laura Ingles

Top of the Food Chain
While we unequivocally adore Richmond's hyper-local dining scene, these food writers shamelessly share what they love about their favorite chain restaurants.

Chain Gang
Why independent restaurant owners have mad respect for chains.

Off the Chain
Why this food writer always chooses local over corporate.

Chain Reactions
Love 'em or loathe 'em, chain restaurants wouldn't exist in Richmond without a thriving market.

French Fry Frenzy
When it comes to fast food, who delivers the superior fried side?

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